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British military

British Armed Forces
Flag of the Joint Services
Founded 1707
Service branches Naval Service
British Army
Royal Air Force
Commander-in-Chief Queen Elizabeth II[1]
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
(de facto authority)
Secretary of State for Defence
Rt Hon David Cameron MP

Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP
Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Houghton
Available for
military service
14,607,725 males, age 15–49,
14,028,738 females, age 15–49
Fit for
military service
12,046,268 males, age 15–49,
11,555,893 females, age 15–49
Active personnel 205,330 active personnel[N 1]
Reserve personnel 181,720 regular reserve[N 2]
Budget FY 2013-14: GBP £36.3 billion[2]
FY 2012-13: USD $60.8 billion (ranked 4th)[3]
Percent of GDP 2.5%[3]

The British Armed Forces, officially Her Majesty's Armed Forces and sometimes known as the Armed Forces of the Crown,[4] are the armed forces of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Armed Forces encompass three professional uniformed services: the Naval Service (including the Royal Navy and Royal Marines), the British Army and the Royal Air Force.[5]

The Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty's Armed Forces is the British monarch,[1] Queen Elizabeth II, to whom members of the forces swear allegiance. Under British constitutional law, the armed forces are subordinate to the Crown, however this power is qualified by the requirement for parliamentary consent to the maintaining of a standing army and Parliament's approval of taxation and supply of funds for the armed forces. Under the 1689 Bill of Rights no standing army may be maintained during time of peace without the consent of Parliament[6] and in modern times Parliament gives this consent every five years by passing an Armed Forces Act. Consistent with longstanding constitutional convention, the Prime Minister holds de facto authority over the use of the armed forces.[7] The armed forces are managed by the Defence Council of the Ministry of Defence, headed by the Secretary of State for Defence.

The British Armed Forces are charged with protecting the United Kingdom, its overseas territories and Crown Dependencies, as well as promoting Britain's wider security interests, and supporting international peacekeeping efforts.[8] They are active and regular participants in NATO and other coalition operations. Britain is also party to the Five Power Defence Arrangements. Recent operations have included wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2000 intervention in Sierra Leone, ongoing peacekeeping responsibilities in the Balkans and Cyprus, and participation in the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya. Overseas garrisons and facilities are maintained at Ascension Island, Belize, Brunei, Canada, Diego Garcia, the Falkland Islands, Germany, Gibraltar, Kenya, Qatar and the Sovereign Base Areas (Cyprus).[9][10]

In 1952 Great Britain tested its first nuclear weapon under Operation Hurricane, it was the third nation in the world to achieve the status of a nuclear power. As of 2012 Britain remains one of five recognised nuclear powers, with a total of 225 nuclear warheads. Of those, no more than 160 are deployed and active. Its nuclear deterrence system is based on Trident missiles onboard nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.


Upon the Act of Union in 1707, the armed forces of England and Scotland were merged into the armed forces of the Kingdom of Great Britain. By 1815, with the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo Britain had risen to become the world's dominant superpower, and the British Empire subsequently presided over a period of relative peace, known as Pax Britannica, until the outbreak of World War One in 1914. Between 1707 and 1914, British forces played a prominent role in notable conflicts including the Seven Years' War, the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War.

The current structure of defence management in Britain was set in place in 1964 when the modern day Ministry of Defence (MoD) was created (an earlier form had existed since 1940). The MoD assumed the roles of the Admiralty, the War Office and the Air Ministry.

Cold War

Post–World War II economic and political decline, as well as changing attitudes in British society and government, were reflected by the Armed Forces' contracting global role.[11][12][13] Britain's protracted decline was dramatically epitomised by its political defeat during the Suez War of 1956.[14] The 1957 Defence White Paper abolished conscription and reduced the size of the Armed Forces from 690,000 to 375,000 by 1962.[15] Seeking an inexpensive alternative to maintaining a large conventional military, the government pursued a doctrine of nuclear deterrence.[16][17] This initially consisted of free-fall bombs operated by the RAF, but these were eventually superseded by the submarine-launched Polaris ballistic missile. While assurances had been made to the United States that Britain would maintain a presence "East of Suez", a process of gradual withdrawal from its eastern commitments was undertaken in the 1960s, primarily for economic reasons.[18][19] By the mid-1970s, Britain had withdrawn permanently deployed forces from Aden, Bahrain, Malaysia, Mauritius, Oman, Sharjah, and Singapore. Agreements with Malta (expired 1979) and South Africa (terminated 1975) also ended.

With a permanent presence east of Suez effectively reduced to Hong Kong (up to 1997) and Brunei, the Armed Forces reconfigured to focus on the responsibilities allocated to the services during the Cold War.[13][20][21] Substantial forces thus became committed to NATO in Europe and elsewhere; by 1985, 72,929 personnel were stationed in Continental Europe.[21][22][23] The British Army of the Rhine and RAF Germany consequently represented the largest and most important overseas commitments that the British Armed Forces had during this period.[24] The Royal Navy's fleet developed an anti-submarine warfare specialisation, with a particular focus on countering Soviet submarines in the Eastern Atlantic and North Sea.[20] In the process of this transition and due to economic constraints, four conventional aircraft carriers and two "commando" carriers were decommissioned between 1967 and 1984.[25][26] With the cancellation of the CVA-01 project, three Invincible-class STOVL aircraft carriers, originally designed as "Through-Deck Cruisers", became their ultimate replacements.[26]

While this focus on NATO obligations increased in prominence during the 1970s, low-intensity conflicts in Northern Ireland and Oman emerged as the primary operational concerns of the British Armed Forces.[27] These conflicts had followed a spate of insurgencies against British colonial occupation in Aden, Cyprus, Kenya and Malaysia.[27] An undeclared war with Indonesia had also occurred in Borneo during the 1960s, and recurring civil unrest in the declining number of British colonies often required military assistance.

Recent history

Three major reviews of the British Armed Forces have been conducted since the end of the Cold War. The Conservative government produced the Options for Change review in the 1990s, seeking to benefit from a perceived post–Cold War "peace dividend".[28] All three services experienced considerable reductions in manpower, equipment, and infrastructure.[29] Though the Soviet Union had disintegrated, a presence in Germany was retained, albeit in the reduced form of British Forces Germany. Experiences during the First Gulf War prompted renewed efforts to enhance joint operational cohesion and efficiency among the services by establishing a Permanent Joint Headquarters in 1996.[30][31]

An increasingly international role for the British Armed Forces has been pursued since the Cold War's end.[32] This has entailed the Armed Forces often constituting a major component in peacekeeping missions under the auspices of the United Nations or NATO, and other multinational operations. Consistent under-manning and the reduced size of the Armed Forces has, however, highlighted the problem of "overstretch" in recent years.[33] This has reportedly contributed to personnel retention difficulties and challenged the military's ability to sustain its overseas commitments.[33][34][35]

The Strategic Defence Review (SDR)—described as "foreign-policy-led"—was published in 1998.[36][37] Expeditionary warfare and tri-service integration were central to the review, which sought to improve efficiency and reduce expenditure by consolidating resources.[38][39] Most of the Armed Forces' helicopters were collected under a single command and a Joint Force Harrier was established in 2000, containing the Navy and RAF's fleet of Harrier Jump Jets. A Joint Rapid Reaction Force was formed in 1999, with significant tri-service resources at its disposal.[40]

The first major post-11 September restructuring was announced in the 2004 Delivering Security in a Changing World: Future Capabilities review, continuing a vision of "mobility" and "expeditionary warfare" articulated in the SDR.[41][42] Future equipment projects reflecting this direction featured in the review, including the procurement of two large aircraft carriers and a series of medium-sized vehicles for the Army. Reductions in manpower, equipment, and infrastructure were also announced. The decision to reduce the Army's regular infantry to 36 battalions (from 40) and amalgamate the remaining single-battalion regiments was controversial, especially in Scotland and among former soldiers.[43] Envisaging a rebalanced composition of more rapidly deployable light and medium forces, the review announced that a regiment of Challenger 2 main battle tanks and a regiment of AS-90 self-propelled artillery would be converted to lighter roles.[42][44]

In November 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron signed a 50-year treaty with French President Nicolas Sarkozy that would have the two countries cooperate intensively in military matters.[45]


The British Armed Forces is a professional force with a strength in April 2013 of 176,660 regular, 13,760 of which were untrained[46] and 28,670 volunteer reserve personnel[47][N 3]. This gives a combined component strength of 205,330 personnel. In addition there were 181,720 regular reserves[48] from all services of the British Armed Forces. The British Armed Forces constitute the second-largest military in the European Union in terms of professional personnel.

Britain has the fourth-largest defence budget in the world. The United States, China and Russia have larger defence expenditures, whilst France and Japan have a comparable expenditure. In September 2011, according to the Royal United Services Institute, current "planned levels of defence spending should be enough for the United Kingdom to maintain its position as one of the world's top military powers, as well as being one of NATO-Europe's top military powers. Its edge – not least its qualitative edge – in relation to rising Asian powers seems set to erode, but will remain significant well into the 2020’s, and possibly beyond."[49]

In the 2013 Spending Review, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, reinforced the government's commitment to the 2010 SDSR and stated the £38bn "black hole" in the defence budget had been filled, that at over 2% of GDP, the defence budget will remain one of the largest in the world, the equipment budget will grow by 1% in real terms every year after 2015, that there will be further reductions in the civilian MoD workforce, PFI contracts signed in the last decade would be renegotiated, the way equipment is purchased is to be overhauled, and a greater commitment to cyber warfare.[50]

Command organisation

As Sovereign and head of state, Queen Elizabeth II is Head of the Armed Forces[51] and their Commander-in-Chief.[1] Long-standing constitutional convention, however, has vested de facto executive authority, by the exercise of Royal Prerogative powers, in the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, and the Prime Minister (acting with the support of the Cabinet) makes the key decisions on the use of the armed forces. The Queen, however, remains the "ultimate authority" of the military, with officers and personnel swearing allegiance to the monarch. It has been claimed that this includes the power to prevent unconstitutional use of the armed forces, including its nuclear weapons.[52]

The Ministry of Defence is the Government department and highest level of military headquarters charged with formulating and executing defence policy for the Armed Forces; it currently employs over 80,000 civilians in 2011. This number will be reduced to just 55,000 by 2015 (a reduction of 25,000 as per the October 2010 SDSR) and then again to 48,000 by 2020.[53] The department is controlled by the Secretary of State for Defence and contains three deputy appointments: Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Minister for Defence Procurement, and Minister for Veterans' Affairs.

Responsibility for the management of the forces is delegated to a number of committees: the Defence Council, Chiefs of Staff Committee, Defence Management Board and three single-service boards. The Defence Council, composed of senior representatives of the services and the Ministry of Defence, provides the "formal legal basis for the conduct of defence". The three constituent single-service committees (Admiralty Board, Army Board and Air Force Board) are chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence.

The Chief of the Defence Staff is the professional head of the Armed Forces and is an appointment that can be held by an Admiral, Air Chief Marshal or General. Before the practice was discontinued in the 1990s, those who were appointed to the position of CDS had been elevated to the most senior rank in their respective service (a 5-star rank).[54] The CDS, along with the Permanent Under Secretary, are the principal advisers to the departmental minister. The three services have their own respective professional chiefs: the First Sea Lord, the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff.

Operations as of 2007

There were more than 30,000 members of the British Armed Forces deployed abroad in January 2007, serving in various capacities.[56][57] Peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief tasks increased in the 2000s, many under the auspices of the United Nations and NATO.[58] The Armed Forces contributed to the international humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.[59][60]

Within the United Kingdom, there were approximately 140,000 personnel stationed in England, 13,200 in Scotland, 7,000 in Northern Ireland, and 6,200 in Wales.[61] The conflict in Northern Ireland has required the Armed Forces to provide "Military aid to the civil power" since 1969, with a presence that peaked at over 20,000 regular personnel in 1972.[62] Sectarian and paramilitary violence has subsided since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.[63] and the IRA declared an end to its campaign in 2005. Operational support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, known as Operation Banner, officially ended on 1 August 2007, resulting in the reduction of the military presence to the size of a peacetime garrison.[64]

Personnel are based in a number of overseas territories, though internal security for the majority is provided solely by small police forces. Garrisons and facilities exist in Ascension Island, Diego Garcia, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, and the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus.[10] These deployments accounted for over 5,000 personnel in 2006.[56] Locally-raised units are maintained in Bermuda (The Bermuda Regiment), the Falkland Islands (Falkland Islands Defence Force), and Gibraltar (Royal Gibraltar Regiment). Though their primary mission is "home defence", individuals have volunteered for operational duties. The Royal Gibraltar Regiment has recently mobilised section-sized units for attachment to regiments deployed to Iraq.[65][66]

UK Joint Expeditionary Force

The UK Joint Expeditionary Force was announced in December 2012 by the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards.[67] It is designed to be an integrated joint force, with capabilities across the spectrum at sea, on land and in the air, with the aspiration being greater levels of integration than previously achieved especially when combined with other nations' armed forces. Of variable size, it is intended to be the basis of all the UK armed forces' combined joint training; a framework into which other nations will fit. It will be the core of the UK's contribution to any military action, whether NATO, coalition or independent. Together with Command and Control elements including HQ Allied Rapid Reaction Corps and the maritime component HQ at Northwood, the force is designed to meet the UK's obligations to NATO.

Service branches

Naval Service

The Naval Service consists of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. In addition the Naval service is supported by the now privatised Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service.

Royal Navy

Referred to as the "Senior Service" by virtue of its being the oldest service within the British Armed Forces, the Royal Navy is a technologically sophisticated naval force, consisting of 79 commissioned ships and around 170 aircraft. The Navy has been structured around a single fleet since the abolition of the Eastern and Western fleets in 1971.[68] Command of deployable assets is exercised by the Commander-in-Chief Fleet, who also has authority over the Royal Marines and the civilian Royal Fleet Auxiliary.[69] Personnel matters are the responsibility of the Second Sea Lord/Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command, an appointment usually held by a vice-admiral.[70]

The United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent is carried aboard the navy's Vanguard-class of four nuclear ballistic-missile submarines. The surface fleet consists of helicopter carriers, destroyers, frigates, amphibious assault ships, patrol ships, mine-countermeasures, and miscellaneous vessels. A submarine service has existed within the Royal Navy for more than 100 years. The service possessed a combined fleet of diesel-electric and nuclear-powered submarines until the early 1990s. Following the Options for Change defence review, the Upholder class diesel-electric submarines were withdrawn and the attack submarine flotilla is now exclusively nuclear-powered.

The Royal Navy is building two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, embarking an air-group including the advanced fifth-generation multi-role fighter, the F-35B.[71] Seven Astute class nuclear-powered attack submarines have been ordered, with two completed, and four under construction. The Astute class are the most advanced and largest fleet submarines ever built for the Royal Navy, and will maintain Britain's nuclear-powered submarine fleet capabilities for decades to come. The recently built Type 45 destroyers are technologically advanced air-defence destroyers.

Royal Marines

The infantry component of the Naval Service is the Corps of Royal Marines. Consisting of a single manoeuvre brigade (3 Commando) and various independent units, the Royal Marines specialise in amphibious, arctic, and mountain warfare.[72] Contained within 3 Commando Brigade are three attached army units; 1st Battalion, The Rifles, an infantry battalion based at Beachley Barracks near Chepstow (from April 2008), 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, an artillery regiment based in Plymouth, and 24 Commando Regiment Royal Engineers.[73] The Commando Logistic Regiment consists of personnel from the Army, Royal Marines, and Royal Navy.[74]

Royal Fleet Auxiliary

The 19 commissioned ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) primarily serves to replenish Royal Navy warships at sea, and also augments the Royal Navy's amphibious warfare capabilities through its three Template:Sclass/core vessels. It is manned by approximately 2,700 civilian personnel and is funded and run by the Ministry of Defence.

British Army

Main article: British Army

The British Army is made up of the Regular Army and the Territorial Army. The army has a single command structure based at Andover and known as "Army Headquarters".[75][76] Deployable combat formations consist of two divisions (1st Armoured and 3rd Mechanised) and eight brigades.[77][78] Within the United Kingdom, operational and non-deployable units are administered by three regionally-defined "regenerative" divisions (2nd, 4th, and 5th) and London District.[79]

The core element of the Army is the 50 battalions (36 regular and 14 territorial) of regular and territorial infantry, organised into 17 regiments.[80] The majority of infantry regiments contains multiple regular and territorial battalions. Modern infantry have diverse capabilities and this is reflected in the varied roles assigned to them. There are four operational roles that infantry battalions can fulfil: air assault, armoured infantry, mechanised infantry, and light role infantry.

Regiments and battalions eg: the Para's, exist within every corps of the Army, functioning as administrative or tactical formations. Armoured regiments are equivalent to an infantry battalion. There are 11 armoured regiments within the regular army, of which six are designated as "Armoured" and five as "Formation Reconnaissance". With the exception of the Household Cavalry, armoured regiments and their Territorial counterparts are grouped under the Royal Armoured Corps. Arms and support units are also formed into similar collectives organised around specific purposes, such as the Corps of Royal Engineers, Army Air Corps and Royal Army Medical Corps.[81]

Royal Air Force

Main article: Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force has a large operational fleet that fulfils various roles, consisting of both fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. As of January 2012, the RAF operates around 827 aircraft.[82] Frontline aircraft are controlled by Air Command, which is organised into three groups defined by function: 1 Group (Air Combat), 2 Group (Air Support)[83] and 22 Group (training aircraft and ground facilities).[83] In addition 83 Expeditionary Air Group directs formations in the Middle East. Deployable formations consist of Expeditionary Air Wings and squadrons—the basic unit of the Air Force.[84][85] Independent flights are deployed to facilities in Afghanistan, the Falkland Islands, Iraq, and the United States.[86]

The Royal Air Forces operates multi-role and single-role fighters, reconnaissance and patrol aircraft, tankers, transports, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, and various types of training aircraft.[87] Ground units are also maintained by the Royal Air Force, most prominently the RAF Police and the Royal Air Force Regiment (RAF Regt). The Royal Air Force Regiment essentially functions as the local ground defence force of the RAF.[88] Roled principally as ground defence for RAF facilities, the regiment contains nine regular squadrons, supported by five squadrons of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment. By March 2008, the three remaining "Air Defence" squadrons had disbanded or re-roled and their responsibilities transferred to the British Army's Royal Artillery.[89]

Civilian agencies of the Ministry of Defence

The British Armed Forces are supported by civilian agencies owned by the MoD. Although they are civilian, they play a vital role in supporting Armed Forces operations, and in certain circumstances are under military discipline.

Ministry of Defence Police

Defence Equipment and Support

UK Hydrographic Office

For more Information about Civilian Agencies of or within the MoD see Ministry of Defence (United Kingdom).


The Armed Forces mainly recruit from within the United Kingdom, and normally has an annual recruitment target of around 24,000.[90] The minimum recruitment age is 16 years (although personnel may not serve on armed operations below 18 years); the maximum recruitment age is 32 years. The normal term of engagement is 22 years; however, the minimum service required before resignation is 4 years, plus, in the case of the Army, any service below the age of 18.[91] Low unemployment in Britain has resulted in the Army having difficulty in meeting its target, and in the early years of the 21st century there has been a marked increase in the number of recruits from other (predominantly Commonwealth) countries.[92][93]

Citizens of Commonwealth countries, the Republic of Ireland, and dual-nationals are eligible to join the British Armed Forces.[92] In 2005, the proportion of foreign nationals in the Armed Forces rose from a 2004 figure of 7.5 to almost 10 percent. While the Army has been the destination for the majority of recruits, large contingents exist in the Navy and Air Force.[94] Excluding the Brigade of Gurkhas and the Royal Irish Regiment, 7,155 personnel were recorded as being of foreign nationality in 2005.[94]

The largest tri-service national groups recorded in 2005 were Fijian (2,040), Jamaican (1,030), South African (710), Zimbabwean (590), Ghanaian (590), and Irish (335).[94] Smaller contingents were drawn from countries such as Australia (110) and Canada (105), and island nations with relatively small populations.[94] A Grenadian, Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2005 for actions in Iraq.[92]

Specific initiatives to develop female and ethnic minority representation in the Armed Forces has yielded percentage increases of 3.4 and 4.5 since 1997.[23][95][96][97] In 1997, there were 14,830 (5.7%) women and 2.184 (1.0%) personnel who identified as an ethnic minority.[23] This had increased to 17,870 (9.1%) and 10,180 (5.5%) in 2006. A higher percentage of personnel have attained higher-rank since 2000. Notably included among these officers are Rear-Admiral Amjad Hussain, Air Commodore David Case, Commodore Carolyn Stait, Air Vice Marshal Elaine West and Squadron Leader Nicky Smith.[98][99][100]

Women have been integrated into the British Armed Forces since the early 1990s; however, they remain excluded from primarily combat units in the Army, Royal Marines, and Royal Air Force Regiment.[101] The first female military pilot was Flight Lieutenant Julie Ann Gibson while Flight Lieutenants Jo Salter and Kirsty Moore were the first fast-jet pilots, the former flying a Tornado GR1 on missions patrolling the then Northern Iraqi No-Fly Zone.[102] Flight Lieutenant Juliette Fleming and Squadron Leader Nikki Thomas recently were the first Tornado GR4 crew.[103] While enforcing the Libyan No-Fly Zone, Flight Lieutenant Helen Seymour was identified as the first female Eurofighter Typhoon pilot.[104] As of August 2011, a female Lieutenant Commander, Sarah West, will command HMS Portland.[105] Since 2000, sexual orientation has not been a factor considered in recruitment, and homosexuals can serve openly in the armed forces. All branches of the forces have actively recruited at Gay Pride events.[106][107] The forces keep no formal figures concerning the number of gay and lesbian serving soldiers, saying that the sexual orientation of personnel is considered irrelevant and not monitored.[108]

Recent Defence Reviews

See also



External links

  • British Ministry of Defence
  • Support for Britain's Reservists & Employers
  • British Armed Forces & National Service
  • Military Knowledge Online, MOD Defence Academy
  • The government’s expenditure plans 2005-06 to 2007-08

Template:British Armed Forces

Template:Military of Africa

Template:Strategic nuclear weapon systems of the United Kingdom

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